How to get HR careers off to a flying start

Getting a foot in the people profession’s door is rarely easy, but employers that invest in practitioners early on stand to reap the benefits

The pandemic has not been kind to anyone, but in terms of employment prospects, young people have been hit particularly hard. A 2020 survey by the Sutton Trust found three in five (61 per cent) businesses had cancelled work experience placements, with a further two in five (39 per cent) graduate employers saying they expected to hire fewer, or even no, graduates over the next 12 months. There were 166,000 fewer young people in work in June 2021 compared to March 2020, and according to CIPD research, 43 per cent of young people feel the pandemic has harmed their long-term career prospects. 

It’s been just as challenging for those hoping to launch a career in HR. Giulia Falconeri graduated from her postgraduate degree in HRM in the summer of 2020. “I thought companies would never hire again,” she recalls. 
“I was getting interviews, but I never got jobs because they said I didn’t have as much experience as other candidates. It was disappointing, as I had invested so much in getting my master’s.” 

Falconeri has since secured an HR advisor role, but her experience shows how timely it is for the HR profession to examine how it approaches early careers among its own. How can we offer the best experiences to those starting out, whether they’re just beginning their careers or joining the profession later in life? People Management has spoken to employers, experts and early career professionals to compile this guide.

Routes into HR

There are various routes into the profession, says CIPD membership director David D’Souza: “The first, and most obvious option, is a range of qualifications supported by your professional body – CIPD qualifications have recently been updated to ensure their relevance and credibility. Other options include graduate development programmes, apprenticeships, internships and organisations that might hire directly into entry-level roles.” 

Level 3 apprenticeships offer structured entry-level routes into the profession and allow new starters to ‘learn as they earn’. Dean Corbett, chief people officer at Avado, says apprentices are often able to progress more quickly: “We see that they are fully ingrained in the company culture and are able to pick up activities much quicker than those from alternative education routes.”

It’s something Emma Dunning, people director at William Martin Compliance, experienced herself, coming into HR as an apprentice and progressing through the ranks to land her current position. “I’m a huge advocate of apprenticeships,” she says. “They give you a great opportunity to gain key qualifications, while getting years of hands-on experience under your belt. I had a headstart compared to more traditional routes, as I had the experience on my CV, alongside the qualifications.”

Lauren Routledge, people manager at Lewco Holdings, is currently undertaking an apprenticeship. “Gaining on-the-job experience backed up by research and assessments gives you a rounded view of the subject and the opportunity to look at how your learning is implemented into a business environment,” she says. 

If you’re interested in setting up an apprenticeship programme, Corbett advises first engaging with your people to understand what skills are required, then reaching out to learning providers to find out what apprenticeships will best support your organisational strategy.

When it comes to graduate programmes, the content of learning is evolving to keep up with the changing world of work, says Emma Parry, professor of HRM at Cranfield School of Management. “As technology evolves, so do the needs of HR students, from needing to understand basic HR information systems to the application of emerging approaches such as machine learning and AI. The level at which HR professionals are expected to operate has changed. Qualifications need to equip practitioners with the ability to understand the business and include aspects such as finance.” 

Finding talent

Where candidate attraction at this level is concerned, a focus on meaning and purpose is critical. According to CIPD research involving students, the main reason for being attracted to a career in the people profession is the ability to make a positive difference to working lives. Parry has noticed similar: “There is much more of a desire to do something meaningful. While pay and progression are obviously important, particularly in the early stages, people new to the HR profession also want to understand how they can have an impact in the organisation.”

James Frost is about to embark on a graduate HR scheme at a large construction firm. He describes his experience of graduate recruitment as “variable”. Out of the 16 organisations he engaged with, he only received feedback from two. “You can’t be successful in all of them, but you need to hear what you did well, less well and an outcome,” he says, adding that he still hasn’t heard anything from an assessment centre day he attended in November. 

When it came to deciding which job to accept, he was attracted by how his new employer brought its values and culture to life. “They were able to give clear examples of how HR cascades those values throughout the organisation, which made it real, not just words,” he says.

When Falconeri was job hunting, she was looking for an organisation with a great reputation, international presence and high employee satisfaction levels. “It was most important to find a job in an organisation where employees feel valued and where employers invest in developing their internal talent,” she explains.

Both Frost and Falconeri urge employers to consider how they can open doors to those without work experience. “Not having HR-specific experience is a big barrier,” says Frost, who encountered this himself when he first graduated, but was lucky enough to get a job in a recruitment firm to boost his CV. “It can be a problem for those who don’t have access to work experience opportunities. People might have the skillset and personality, but not the opportunity.”

It’s also worth considering how someone from a non-HR background might be a great addition to your team. Kiran Grewal recently entered the profession as an HR advisor, moving from a career in social work. “[Those from different fields] bring another perspective and transferable skills that can improve an organisation’s processes,” she says. “My previous career meant when I worked on a wellbeing page, I was able to bring new ideas such as considerations for debt management, honour-based violence, homelessness and domestic abuse.” 

Getting on

Once you’ve hired someone, development opportunities are key to enable them to add value fast and to retain them in a competitive talent market. L&D should be part of the induction process, believes Robert Rees, head of L&D at people services provider Rocko. “The compliance elements of induction learning are important, but so is the ‘how’,” he says. “The skills of the new HR professional enable them to get things done – collaboration, communication and project management. We should focus on supporting the development of these skills, as it will push the performance and potential of the professional upwards, impacting the organisation in a positive way.”

With much work still taking place virtually, it’s more important than ever to build a sense of human connection and to be intentional in helping new starters forge strong relationships within their team and across the wider business. Deloitte hires graduates and apprentices at scale, including into the people function. Resourcing director Simon Hallett says connecting people with their peers and other supporters is key: “We appoint a buddy: someone else in the early stage of their career who can explain how things work and we connect them with their fellow joiners to build a sense of camaraderie.” 

At Rocko, pairing new starters with a peer mentor has been invaluable. “It provides some guidance while allowing the new person to be in the driving seat,” says Rees. “As they grow, this mentoring relationship tends to organically move to a coaching or colleague relationship.” Falconeri echoes the importance of this kind of support: “The learning opportunities I find most useful are those situations that go outside and above my level, where I can learn from more experienced colleagues.”

If a junior member  of staff is undertaking qualifications, you’ll need to support that learning. Routledge says embedding “uninterrupted time” for online learning has been vital. Corbett adds that companies that benefit the most from apprenticeships are those that “support and encourage their learners from start to finish. Ensuring learners are given the time needed to excel is a priority, and you reap the benefits in the long run,” he says. 

Helping your new potential HR stars to see how their role contributes to the wider organisation is also key, advises Parry, thinking about how starter jobs can be tweaked to move away from compliance and administration, and instead offer opportunities to develop their skills for the future. “People want more flexibility, so moving away from very fixed career paths to those that allow people to experiment can be attractive,” she says. “It’s important to allow people to gain experience outside of HR, so they gain a broader understanding of the business.”  

Where to begin your HR career

Natalie Ellis, founder of Rebox HR and author of Launch Your HR Career, offers tips for those starting out

“I began my HR career using transferable skills in customer service to gain an entry level HR position. I did my Level 3 CIPD in HR practice, followed by my Level 5 qualification, working in an HR role alongside my studies. Experience and qualifications are equally important. 

“I’ve worked in large corporate roles, but it’s in the smaller companies where I was presented with challenges that many professionals might not get the chance to experience, thinking on my feet and building purposeful relationships. I got to experience every part of HR rather than becoming a specialist, giving me strong foundations and the confidence to create my company.

“When looking for your first HR role, never look purely at a job title. Always read the job description fully, look at how the advert is positioned and see if it aligns with your values. Being a generalist at first allows you to experience everything, then you can decide to specialise later.

“Get to know others outside your department – speak to everyone as you make your way to your desk. This helps to gain that essential commercial experience, as well as becoming someone people in the business trust. The more you know about how departments work together, the more you get to know your people and the more effective your HR support will be.

“Those entering the people profession today are looking for more flexible working, a better work-life balance and a supportive and inclusive environment. If you’re an HR manager hiring entry level talent, I’d look at motivations and passions – someone who doesn’t just want a job but who wants to succeed in a career they are passionate about.”